Every day, Richard Hibbert does something which, as a restaurateur, he never imagined he would: he gets on his phone and checks local hospital admission figures.
Having had a year struggling through lockdowns and restrictions, he is desperate to glean any clue about potential future disruption at his three Retreat venues in Bolton and Lancashire.
“They’ve been steady since the summer,” he says of those figures. “And they’re still steady now but…”
The “but” is omicron.
The new Covid variant is suddenly throwing a shadow over a hospitality industry that was hoping and praying it had seen off the worst of coronavirus.
As pubs and restaurants across the UK prepare for a Christmas that was supposed to help make up for almost two catastrophic years, they are suddenly facing the nightmare scenario of, at best, customer apprehension and, at worst, a new shuttering.
“As long as those [hospital] numbers stay stable, I don’t think there’ll be a lockdown and I don’t think people will be put off going out this Christmas,” says Mr Hibbert. “I think we’ve had a year and a half of this now and people are tired of the restrictions. I think they’ve got jabbed and they’ve accepted this is something that needs to be lived with. ”
And yet there is concern when he thinks about omicron.
“If the government decides to lock down, it would be catastrophic for us,” he says. “We’ve spent tens of thousands becoming more Covid-secure for the past 18 months – outdoor seating, extra heating, staff training – but now we need a good Christmas to help us pay that investment back.”
Speak to anyone in the hospitality industry right now, and hopes of such a “good Christmas” is their number one preoccupation.
That’s probably true every year to some extent but, in 2021, it is of almost existential importance to many.
“It’s a nightmare that we’re even having to think about [lockdown and customer nerves],” says Christian Burns, who owns five pubs in Bishop Auckland, including The Merry Monk and The Reading Rooms. “This should be the busiest time of the year and now, just from what’s already happening, we’re already seeing inquiries dropping off. People are nervous and when people are nervous, they don’t go to the pub or out for a meal.”
How bad would another cancelled Christmas be? “I’ll tell you straight,” he says. “I don’t know if we have a future in 2022. And that won’t just be me. That’s half the industry.”
Around 1,000 pubs have closed since so-called Freedom Day ended most of England’s restrictions on 19 July.
“Well, you’ll see thousands more [close] if they can’t open at Christmas or if trade falls off a cliff,” says Mr Burns, 63. “We’ll be goosed. This period takes us through to mid-February – to Valentine’s Day – and, without it, I just don’t know.”
For Richard Gladwin, indeed, the impact of omicron is already taking hold.
His five restaurants in southern England have already seen what he calls “huge cancellations” on the back of the sudden uncertainty.
“This month is the month all the profit to get through January and February comes in and cash reserves are still low despite having a good few months of trading,” he says.
“From a business perspective, further Covid measures is what I’m worried about. We’re tightening on spending, recruitment and going into further worry playing the Covid balancing game into the new year.”
Giovanni Reitano, assistant manager at The Champion pub in west London, however, is calling for tighter restrictions to be introduced now in a bid to save Christmas and avoid stricter measures then.
“The advice is confusing,” he says. “It should be tighter, people should be wearing masks in pubs and restaurants. It was good when we had six people dining together at once but with loads of people gathering together and having Christmas parties, of course there will be a spread.
“If we have tighter measures now – even for two weeks until 15 December – we can avoid ruining Christmas and going into a full lockdown if things get worse.”
The pub – which relies havily on tourism – is already seeing fewer tourists after new restrictions were announced which included UK arrivals taking a day two PCR test and isolating until results are received.
Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, says the industry is already seeing bookings cancelled and postponed, despite venues having invested heavily to help protect the health and safety of staff and customers.
“Christmas trade was already looking weaker than usual but would no doubt take a further hit should the omicron variant start to translate into higher numbers of Covid cases.
“There is no doubt that this will have a damaging effect on businesses, just as they head into their key trading period. This all comes at a critical time for the sector, as costs are rising across the board, supply chain issues continue, chronic labour shortages show no sign of easing and next year will see a return of a 20 per cent VAT rate.”
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